Framework Knitting and Weaving

by Ron Spiers

There are different types of framework weaving, knitting stockings is one, another is narrow band silk for ribbons, and finally the weaving of broad band silk for clothing. This latter type gave rise to sumptuous designs using the Jacquard machine, and well known designers such as Mary Garthwaite, c1740’s.

Stocking knitting

Stockings have been worn for centuries. During the fifteenth century hand knitted wool stockings were the norm, the English wool industry was flourishing and wool merchants were very rich. The Government decreed that burials should be in wool, that is, the body was wrapped in a woollen blanket, the object of this was to protect the English woollen industry. Women wore long dresses which hid their legs, but for men the long coat was gradually giving way to doublets, balloon shaped knickers, and it was fashionable to show as much leg as possible. A painting of Richard Sackville, Earl of Dorset in 1616 shows him wearing long silk stockings below his doublet. Silk was becoming a favourite material and it was often elaborately embroided. However it was a Royal and a rich man’s material and commoners were forbidden its use, they used wool.

The history of mechanical stocking knitting goes back to an invention in about 1589 by an Englishman, the Reverend William Lee who, in London, developed a machine, a hand operated frame, to make stockings. He provided Elizabeth 1 with a pair of stockings woven on it but she refused to give him a patent because they were coarser than the French silk stockings she used. Lee tried again a year later but Elizabeth, not wishing to destroy thousands of her subjects knitting jobs, again refused a patent. So Lee, with his brother, took his frame to France where, with Henry 1V’s support, it was taken up and his frame gave rise to a flourishing industry in the town of Troyes in northern France. He was in Rouen in 1610 and it is assumed that he died in France shortly after that. Lee’s stocking frame was brought back to London by his brother, James, who improved it. By the outbreak of the Civil War (1642-49) there were still only a few hundred knitting frames in use. The Company of Framework Knitters was formed in London in 1657 enabling the trade to be regulated. It took seven years to train an apprentice to become a journeyman before becoming a master. The trade at this point was in London but it had become so closely regulated that knitters started to move to the Midlands, where the hand operated stocking frame had first been used, to set up in business there. In London stocking knitting had been taking place near Spitalfields and in Shoreditch but later it gave up stocking knitting and sold its frames to Midland firms; between 1732 and 1750, 800 stocking frames were sold by London firms to Nottingham at half their cost. The first pair of cotton stockings as opposed to wool or silk may have been made in Nottingham in 1730.

Stocking knitting was once a major industry in the Midlands region of England, and was found in the South Midlands, in towns such as Hinckley, Leicester and Loughborough. In the North Midlands it was Nottingham, Sutton Ashfield and Mansfield. Framework knitters produced stockings using a hand and foot operated frame, and on a different frame, narrow band silk which was used for hat bands and ribbons. In 1844 a great many hand operated frames were in use. Hinckley and Sutton Ashfield had about 2,000 apiece, Leicester and Nottingham about 4,000 apiece; surrounding villages had maybe only a few dozen in each village. There was no factory system, the frames were in people’s homes, usually upstairs near a large window to let daylight in. Cottages had them at ground level. Candles were expensive. A weaver may have had one or more frames, probably rented. Whole families were engaged in different aspects of the task, from the very young to the very old. The frames were the height of a man, built of heavy timber, foot pedal operated and needed stamina and concentraton, the work was backbreaking and usually only the stronger men operated the machines. Days were long, maybe 17 hours at the frame. A buyer would reject faulty work. Both feet were used to operate the pedals and the weaver used his arms to move the heavy iron carriage in its frame. The wool or silk was first spun into yarn using a spinning wheel and then wound onto bobbins which were then placed in the knitting frame. The yarn was usually collected by the weaver from a local merchant when he went to sell his output and collect his pay. Pay was very poor, materials had to be bought, rent for the frame and accommodation had to be found. Besides narrow band ribbon weaving, wider broad band material was also produced using a similar but different type of frame. The name ‘piece work’ comes from the price paid to the broad loom weaver for a ‘piece’, a length, of the material. The measure of length of broad band material was the ‘el’, the distance between fingers and elbow. Weaving in the Midlands was largely confined to wool and silk stockings and later, cotton stockings, and the narrow ribbon material.

Scotland and the Borders also had a significant stocking knitting industry in the 1700’s. In 1800 there were 30 frames at Maxwellton and Dumfries; there were 500 frames in the Dumfries area by 1869.

Silk weaving

The earliest centres of silk weaving in Britain were Coventry and Norwich in the Midlands, Canterbury in the South, and Spitalfields in East London and later Southwark across the Thames in Surrey. The earliest looms wove narrow braids and ribbons, followed later by broad silk for clothing. An Act of Parliament in 1455 provided protection of the industry from foreign competition. French protestant weavers had been coming to the country since the massacre of St Bartholomew in France in 1572. This was reinforced by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 when at least 50,000 refugees many of them French Huguenots, sought refuge in England, mainly in Spitalfields, which is part of the parish of Stepney, London. They brought with them not only silk weaving and design skills, but paper making, printing, bookbinding, gunmaking, gold, silver and jewellry manufacture. These latter trades settled around Clerkenwell and nearer to the City of London rather than with the weavers in East London, because it was where the potential buyers lived. Towards the end of the 18th century according to some estimates, about thirty thousand silk weavers worked in East London. The 1801 census recorded the London population as just under one million people, and houses for silk weavers extended from Spitalfields to Bethnal Green, which is the next parish. Many silk merchants grew rich and built large houses in Spital Square and in the streets around Christ Church, the lofts often housing weaving looms, but as competition increased weavers incomes dropped. Other silk towns such as Macclesfield in Cheshire, which had been producing narrow band silk ribbon to cover buttons since 1680, were in competition with London and in the mid to late 19th century London weavers were amongst the poorest and their living area was overcrowded. In 1860 by means of the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty, the English Government abolished duties on the import of French silk, the industry went into rapid decline and within weeks English ports were flooded with French silk. There were many reasons for their action, for example the increasing use of cotton had reduced the market for silk. Many weavers emigrated to America to avoid destitution.

Most silk yarn had been produced in the home by hand throwing, but in 1721 a water-powered throwing mill was constructed by Thomas Lombe in Derby and this marked the beginning of factory production.

Scotland had been involved in the making of silk since 1581 when Robert Dickson of Perth was granted a monopoly. Flemish weavers were brought over to Scotland in 1587 to practice their silk weaving craft in Edinburgh, other trades followed; there is still a Dutch feel to parts of Edinburgh. In 1601 seven more Flemings were allowed entry. The Flemings set up silk factories in Scotland in Ayr, Bonnington and Newmills but had to employ Scots apprentices. Some of the Spitalfields silk trade moved up to Scotland to Renfrew and Glasgow when the Spitalfields Act of 1760 set minimim wages in London. Kilbarchan and Paisley both to the East of Glasgow, flourished. A speciality being Paisley silk shawls with their distinctive design. In 1781 Renfrew had 2,000 looms weaving linen and 4,800 weaving silk. In 1782 there were 18 silk manufacturers in Paisley of which 6 were branches of Spitalfields, London firms.


During the conflict between Britain and America in the 1760’s and 1770’s the export trade for knitted goods declined. It revived at the end of the War of American Independence. At the end of the War with France in 1763 many silk workers found themselves without a job. In 1766 Govenment banned the import of silk. The Napoleonic Wars started by France in 1803 stimulated the need for clothing for the army and navy, but a decline set in between 1811-1815, because of taxation and decreased demand at home and because of general poverty. For a while, particularly in Nottingham in 1811-1812, organised Luddism set in under the control of the mythical, ‘Ned Ludd’, the deliberate destroying of stocking frames by workers to protect their jobs. Six men were convicted in Leicester and hanged and three transported for life. The stocking industry did not recover until the introduction of steam-powered frames in the 1870’s. Since then the decline has been continuous and whilst most firms have closed there is still a demand for knitted goods and for special silk fabrics, and a few firms are still in business.

Many Spiers, and Speirs, have been involved in the industry as weavers, merchants and inventors. They have lived in London, Leicester, Hinckley, Macclesfield, Chippenham, Glasgow, Paisley and Renfrew. It can be surmised that many may have moved home to follow their trade, perhaps from London to Leicester and Glasgow, from Leicester to London, and so on. The early involvement of the Dutch and Flemish, particularly in Scotland may also have caused families to move. The author has details of some of these families. They have also been involved in some of the other trades mentioned, such as gunmaking, publishing and jewellery; they do not appear to be of Huguenot descent but some married Huguenots. Rothstein provides potted biographies of many 18th century weavers, mercers and designers but neither the Warner book nor the Rothstein book mention Spiers. However two names mentioned in Rothstein are Mary Garthwaite and Daniel Vautier, who was one of Garthwaite’s customers. They may not be the same persons but, Richard Speere married a Mary Garthwaite at St Mathews, Bethnal Green on 21 November 1681, and Sarah Spier married a Daniel Vautier in the French Church, London in 1724. The author’s silk weaver ancestors were christened and married in St Mathews, and were christened in Christ Church, London.

This is very brief outline of the weaving industry. For further information refer to the following –

The Silk Industry of the United Kingdom, by Sir Frank Warner, Drane’s, London, c1916.

Silk Designs of the Eighteenth Century, by Natalie Rothstein, Thames & Hudson, London.

The Silk Industry, by Sarah Bush, Shire Publications Ltd, England, 1987.

Framework Knitting, by Marilyn Palmer, Shire Publications Ltd, England, 1984.

Huguenot Heritage, by Robin D. Gwynn, London, 1985

Ron Spiers, England 2003